Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mets Would Be Foolish to Trade Milledge

by Alan Eliot

Billy Beane is a great General Manager. He's shrewd. He's so good at evaluating talent, and finding value where others could not, that other GM's have learned to be wary of him whenever he puts out the feelers on a prospect of theirs. "What could I have missed?", they ask. "What does he see that I don't?"

If the rumors and hearsay are to be believed, he adores Mets super-prospect Lastings Milledge. Wants Lastings Milledge. Can picture a freshly pressed uniform, in green, gold and white, proudly stitched with the last name of their newest addition: Milledge.

And, with the next move (again, if the rumors are true) offers Barry Zito. Straight up.

And from the side of Mets management, a pause. A quiver of the lip. A bead of sweat down the brow. In the offseason, Beane would not budge from an asking price of Milledge plus Mets reliever/possible starter Aaron Heilman. Suddenly, the price has dropped. Zito can be had. For just one player.

You can almost hear Beane spinning the tale to Mets GM Omar Minaya on the phone:

You know how prospects are. They are unproven. They more often than not don't pan out- it is the way the system works. You know this, Omar. Especially with a free-swinger like Milledge. What did he hit up in the bigs? .233? 24 strikeouts in 86 AB? Surely not what you were hoping for your top-prospect.

And I am offering you a guaranteed entity. I am not blowing smoke up your ass like Tampa Bay did to your Mets two years ago. This isn't Victor Zambrano. This is Barry f*cking Zito. What's that you say, Omar? Of course I realize that would have never happened under your guidance. Right. The New Mets. Ah ha. Got it. I understand. That's why you don't see me asking for a Mike Pelfrey. I know you guys are still wary of trading another top pitching prospect. Which is why we are talking about Lastings here, Omar.

Remember Lastings? Remember the .287 OBP? Remember the .419 SLG? Sure he started off well, but pitchers adjusted to him within a matter of a few short weeks. Sure it was a 24-game cup of coffee. Ah ha. I know. His learning experience. But you have to admit flags were raised, and not just for his lack of plate discipline. You remember the incident which allowed you to acquire him in the first place, with the girl? No one wanted to touch him that year, Omar, but the Mets. And then this year with the coming late and missing the bus. What's that all about? And with the high-fiving the crowd and showing up the opposing pitcher. You just know the kid is going to cause problems. You think Willie's going to be able to contain that mess-waiting-to-happen? You think his attitude won't rub off on the rest of the clubhouse?

But, luckily for you, we here at the A's don't mind checkered histories. We don't mind players with a past. Players no one else wanted. They thrive here. We get them for a price the A's can handle, and we take a chance on them. We don't need to win now. We can win next year, two years. It's all the same, and our team will remain competitive yearly regardless. We can afford to test out Milledge here, to watch him. You're on the cusp of winning the division for the first time in 18 years- what are you going to do when you call him up and he doesn't produce in meaningful games? How can you take that risk?

18 seasons is an awful long time, Omar. And your arms are falling apart at the seams. You expect to win with that joke of a starting staff? Pedro has rested for a month now, and who knows what he'll have when he comes back. You and I both know Glavine is not even close to as good as his record indicates- and at this point in the season, isn't fooling anyone with those pitches. Trachsel? A joke, right? A fifth starter in Kansas City, perhaps. Not a 3rd starter in the Big Apple. Soler? Maine? LIMA? Pelfrey? El Duque? Are these the possibilities you are juggling at the back end? You'll hobble into the postseason and be gone in three games.

I'm offering you Cy Young talent. 28-year old Cy Young talent. Lefty, 28-year old, Cy Young talent. Rick Peterson loved him here, and will love him even more as a Met. All for your big, fat, question mark, Lastings Milledge.

But you know how it is, Omar. I'm an Oakland guy, I make my living signing cheap players. You know I can't afford to re-sign Zito. My fans will forgive me with a temporary dip in the win-loss column. You're a NY guy, your fans demand wins, and wins now. You make your living signing stars like Zito. And they won't forgive you if you don't act to bolster your team. You have one of the most potent offenses in the NL- clearly your most pressing need is in your starting pitching. Your one piece of the puzzle for that championship- and I have it. And all it's gonna cost you is Lastings. The one piece of your puzzle that you absolutely don't need.

Well anyway Omar, you know where to reach me. Call me when you want to deal. Ciao.

And so it goes. Talk of Zito for Milledge. Milledge, the problem-child, with the lack of discipline, the unproven talent. Zito, the young former Cy Young Award winner, graduating from Beane's school of frugality and looking for a new home from which to dominate his respective league.

But what of it? Beane is the master of value. He knows others value past performance well, especially the Mets who have a track record for overlooking current problems for hope of a return to past glory. But an ex-Cy Young award winner is just that- an ex-Cy Young award winner.

Barry Zito, since his 2002 Cy Young Award Season, in which he went 23-5, with 182 K, 2.33 K/BB and 2.75 ERA:
49-43, .533 winning percentage.

This season, his K/BB is around 1.6, with league average at .253, and league OPS at .734. For comparison's sake, in 2002, the league average against him was .218, and league OPS at .626. Sure, every season, since 2001 he has logged in at least 213 innings, but there is no question that Barry Zito is no longer the Barry Zito that Barry Zito once was. Additionally, this would be crazy from the Mets' perspective for other reasons as well- not limited to the fact that Zito becomes a free agent at season's end, and there would be no guarantee of Zito coming back to the Mets. This is basically Billy Beane getting something for nothing. And of course, it could become an issue like the Kris Benson deal, where the Mets, desparate to retain him in the 2004 offseason to justify a trade, ended up overpaying for his services. That cost the Mets $8 million/yr. What would overpaying for Barry Zito look like?

Of course, similar arguments can be made against two other trade candidates for Lastings Milledge, Dontrelle Willis and Bobby Abreu. A few statistics:

Dontrelle Willis:
Dontrelle Willis is a bit of an enigma. You never know what you're going to get from him- will he pitch a complete game today, or will he give up 6 runs? Sure, he is a 24-year-old with some success at the major league level, and last year's close finish in the Cy Young race proves that. But look at these numbers, for someone known for his ability to strike out opponents:
K/9 2003-2006: 7.95, 6.35, 6.47, 5.79

There is a major question of who the real Dontrelle Willis is. In 2003, his first MLB season, he was 14-6, with a 3.31 ERA. His next season, 2004, saw shaky pitching and a 10-11 record and a 4.02 ERA. Last year he was stellar: 22-10, 2.63 ERA. This year, other than against the Mets, not so much: 6-7, 3.97 ERA.

The Mets have already sent a large portion of their talent to their division rival, the Marlins. Needless to say, dumping their top prospect (if it would only take one Milledge, and not, say, Milledge plus, to seal the deal) into the Marlins' system doesn' t bode well for the Mets in years to come, as Mike Jacobs is already a starter for the Marlins and Yusmeiro Petit is highly touted.

Bobby Abreu:
When I heard these rumors, I almost died laughing. Abreu turns 33 by the start of next season. An aging ex-superstar beginning the tail end of his career, asking for $16 million, and who will cost the Mets their top prospect. In other words, perfect for the Mets. Sure, he leads the NL in walks, and is 2nd in OBP, but Abreu lost his long ball in the HR Derby last year and has yet to recover. It's like he permanently ruined his swing that fateful, record-setting night. His OBP is so good this year, and his SLG so bad (at least Abreu standards), that they are nearly equal (.436 and .446, respectively). Your 8 HR isn't going to cut it, Bobby. Not when we consider that you only hit 6 HR after the All-Star break last year. Not for a corner outfielder who demands top dollar, and who will cost prospect(s). Again, freeing up salary for a division rival and paying them with our top prospect for the privilege = not smart. You were injured with leg and shoulder problems towards the end of last season. You may still have said injuries, and it may be impacting your power. If the Mets are willing to take that injury gamble on you, they deserve whatever comes from it. Historical lessons dictate, however, that Mets don't do well with risk.

And furthermore, since when do the Mets need an outfielder? The least of their concerns.

Putting it together
Besides for looking for flaws in the actual trades themselves, it is useful to remember that the Mets are in first place by 11.5 games, and in spite of their shakiness in the pitching department, have the lowest ERA in the NL at 4.10 (Padres are 2nd at 4.23), the second highest SLG (.453), the second most HR (136), and have scored the most runs (536). The one concerning thing is that the team closest to the Mets in offensive production is Atlanta, who leads the NL in SLG and HR, and are 2nd to the Mets in runs scored (532). Their recent surge may force the hand of Omar Minaya to act in a rash manner and pull the trigger on a potentially long-term bad deal for a short-term gain. This would be silly for many reasons, but mainly because the Mets making the playoffs will not be determined by acquiring one player. In the unlikely scenario that the Mets crash and burn (and miss the playoffs), they do it with or without Zito, and with or without Willis. Simply put, neither Zito nor Willis will affect whether the Mets make it to the postseason- that prospect of missing it is so unlikely that their value over a John Maine or an El Duque in that regard just isn't that high, especially in 2006 with their numbers.

You may be tempted to quip that they would be chips for winning in the playoffs- for which I'd add that the playoffs are an absolute crapshoot, and anyone once making it has a relatively equal chance of winning- if you don' t believe me, look at the statistics for Wild-Card World Series winners in recent years. Five or seven game series just aren't that long, and Zito and Willis just aren't that good.

The bottom line is the Mets will make the playoffs, and I like the chances of a team that has given up the least amount of runs in their league, and that has scored the most. But like I said, crapshoot.

Notice I've said very little about Milledge himself, other than the fact that he is the Mets' most highly touted prospect. That was at least partially deliberate. The fact is, with what's out there, that's all one needs to know. The Mets are not in any position to be desperate, unlike every other team in the running for a playoff spot. They are the team who should most likely hold onto their blue-chips and build for a future. They can afford it. They can win now, and win later. This is a position of power that Omar Minaya should remember very well, as the trading deadline approaches.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays

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